It’s rare to find artists capable of channeling poignant satire with their music while being both sardonic and playful. In this regard, the Boston trio Vundabar delivers in spades. Drawing from some of the heavy, darker elements of the local scene and fusing them with pop sensibilities, the band has created an album that’s catchy as hell while still revelatory.
“There are definitely elements of alienation, but a lot of humor too,” guitarist and vocalist Brandon Hagen tells BTR about the band’s recent release, Gawk.
“There’s lightness to it; even though it can seem negative it’s still laughing rather than letting it get you down.”
Moments of sentimental paradox are further accented by the band’s ability to flip from whimsy to abrasion and whisper-to-shriek dynamics on a dime’s notice.
It’s all thanks to an ever-budding chemistry between principal songwriters Hagen and Drew McDonald–who grew up next to one another and played in a variety of bands together during high school.
Vundabar began as little more than a recording project that the two songwriters embarked on during their final year in school. They had no idea that the GarageBand-fueled debut release Antics would garner the kind of acclaim that it quickly picked up on the indie circuit. Before the two knew it, they were booking a full-on US tour.
While the band is technically a trio, bass players have come and gone over the years. Bass is arguably one of the most integral ingredients to any band (especially when there are only three members), yet the constant cycle of new faces and chemistry hasn’t deterred the songwriters in the slightest. All of the musicians they choose are close friends, a choice that both Hagen and McDonald value immeasurably.
“It doesn’t feel like a stark contrast each time, or that there’s some stranger in the band,” says McDonald. “We like each other, which is why we play music with one another; not the other way around.”
After Antics catapulted the group closer towards the spotlight, the band members set their sights on a European tour. The two-month string of gigs were centered primarily around festival and club dates, and reception was so positive that the band scheduled another tour across the continent less than six months later for the fall of 2014.
This time around, they wound up booking gigs through an esteemed professional, capable of putting them on the bill for bigger shows than anything they had played before.
“It was a huge jump from what we’d done previously,” says Hagen. “I do all of the US booking, so there’s no big agency putting us on crazy bills.”
Before the second European tour, the largest audience the band had ever played for was a crowd of 500. Some of the shows they performed overseas, however, were closer to the ballpark of 2,000.
“It was definitely a challenge trying to keep that many people entertained all at the same time,” adds McDonald. “It helped us feel comfortable growing into a position where we can perform on that kind of level.”
Some of the gigs were far more eccentric. During the middle of their tour, while traveling through the beautiful vistas of Southern France, a local stranger got in touch with the band’s manager. He asked if Vundabar could put on a concert for a nearby school, and in exchange offered the members a place to stay.
When they arrived, they were surprised to find groups of middle school students milling around adults cooking sausages.
“It was a lot of fun; these kids don’t get to see much live music because of how rural their environment is,” says Hagen. “They came right up to us afterward and told us how they were aspiring now to play music. It was really cool to see that kind of enthusiasm in the middle of nowhere.”
Speaking of enthusiasm, the plot thickens. After the show ended, the Frenchman who had contacted the band’s booking agent appeared and graciously ushered the trio back to his villa in the countryside. The musicians had a travel day at their disposal, and serendipitously found themselves in wine country just outside of Bordeaux.
The man (who bore more than a casual resemblance to Andre the Giant, according to McDonald) insisted upon feeding the band wine and cheese all night long.
With more than a few empty bottles clinking around the floor, the Frenchman would profusely gush his gratuity for housing a rock band. He apparently really enjoyed rock and roll.
“He would run over to the record player and put on AC/DC and start screaming, ‘AC/DC is ze best rock album of ze 1992! Aggghhhh!’” laughs McDonald.
The zeal didn’t end there. As the drunken night reached its apex, the four ran out of wine. The man ran down into his cellar and retrieved his favorite bottle in his collection–which was apparently large enough to warrant its own cellar.
Before he opened it, however, he announced his ritual: in a serious slur, he said that every time he opened a bottle of wine, he must shed a tear. Which–without a moment’s hesitation–he proceeded to do. The cork flew into the air and the man began sobbing.
“He just loves wine and rock and roll so much,” recalls McDonald. “It was pretty ridiculous, but a good night.”
With a successful tour (and a devout fan) on the road behind them, Vundabar stepped into Medford, Massachusetts’ Mystic Valley Analog Recording Studio to cut a year’s worth of material in less than two days. The result is Gawk and, while you might not weep about it over a bottle of wine, it’s some damn good rock and roll.